Ruth Hunt was appointed Chief Executive of Stonewall in August 2014, having worked in senior positions in the organisation since 2011. She has successfully led the development of Stonewall’s groundbreaking policy, campaigns and research outputs, including its work to tackle homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying in schools, effective interventions to improve the health of lesbian, gay and bisexual people, and Stonewall’s acclaimed leadership development programmes.
Since taking on the leadership, Ruth has committed to bringing Stonewall even deeper into communities, engaging with groups from different ethnicities, religions and geographies – both in the UK and abroad.
She has also spearheaded Stonewall’s commitment to campaign for trans equality; a decision that will shape Stonewall’s work going forward. This historic move followed an extensive consultation with over 700 trans people and will see Stonewall use its platform and experience to help create real change for trans people.
Ruth attended St Hilda’s College, Oxford, where she studied English and was elected President of Oxford Student Union. Prior to Stonewall, Ruth worked at the Equality Challenge Unit, where she led work advising higher education institutions on sexual orientation and gender identity equality.
In 2015, Ruth was voted the third most influential LGBT person in Britain in the Independent’s Rainbow List. She received two honorary degrees in 2015, one from Cardiff University and the other from Keele University.
Earlier this year, we were delighted to welcome Ruth to the University to speak as part of Christ Church’s Public Lecture series. During her visit, Ruth took time to talk to Inspire about her background in campaigning, Stonewall’s recent work and the relationship between faith and LGBT equality.
How did your passion for campaigning develop?
I have always been a campaigner – I’m Welsh and was brought up during the 80s, so it’s ingrained. My mum was a great role model – she’s a feminist, who worked as a nurse and midwife and then went to university, all while raising a family. She has always been a strong advocate for the education of women. That was the baseline for me.
At school, I was head girl and always had a knack for talking. I had the chat and the ideas – if there was something I could campaign on, I did. When I arrived at university, I got involved in student politics and became student sabbatical officer. However, I was never radical. I have always been very pragmatic. I believe in working with bridges and working with a gentleness and a forgiveness for errors and for when things go wrong. There’s a philosophy to my influencing which is quite Christian – that’s very important to me.
Do you feel that holding such a senior role imposes any restrictions on this passion?
I think campaigners face a constant struggle to get the balance right between pushing and nudging – they are quite different things – and to work out when to say something and when not to. There are times when I’ve felt inauthentic and suppressed my instincts. I felt I had a huge amount to prove when I was made Chief Executive at 34, whereas I’m much more comfortable now.
Stonewall became transgender-inclusive in 2015. How pivotal has this development been for the organisation and what progress has been made since then?
When Stonewall was founded in 1989, trans equality wasn’t really on the agenda for us. The legislation for sexual orientation was very different from the legislation for gender identity. An organisation called Press for Change was set up, which pursued trans equality while Stonewall pursued sexual orientation equality. The Gender Recognition Act and the Civil Partnership Act received royal assent in 2004 and the following year, Stonewall began working with schools, employers and public services, and conducting research. Over the next decade, Stonewall grew substantially in power and influence. However, where the pace of change for Stonewall resulted in the empowerment of LGB, it became diminishing and damaging to the trans community. Stonewall was working with hundreds of organisations but was not talking about trans issues, so the maintenance of two completely separate narratives quickly became dangerous and harmful. By that point, Stonewall was so stuck in its narrative that changing it became very difficult.
“Stonewall is certainly turning up the heat in terms of making organisations trans inclusive.”
Which is why, shortly after I was appointed Chief Executive, Stonewall began a consultation with over 700 trans people and also with supporters and partners. This led to an extension of our remit to campaign for trans equality in 2015, which marked a milestone for the organisation. However, we have been mindful that trans people experience very complex issues and a more nuanced approach to trans equality has been required. There are experiences of discrimination we share as an LGBT community and in order to tackle them we have developed our existing work so that it includes and involves trans people. On other issues that uniquely affect trans people, we’ve approached them by finding new ways of working and building partnerships with the people and organisations already campaigning for equality. This distinction between ‘trans-inclusive’ and ‘trans-specific’ issues continues to shape Stonewall’s approach to campaigning for trans equality.
The Workplace Equality Index is the definitive benchmarking tool for employers to measure their progress on lesbian, gay, bi and trans inclusion in the workplace. For the first time, the 2018 index has asked trans-inclusive questions and organisations are now having to up their game. This means that the top 100 released in January looks very different from last year’s top 100 – there are organisations that have been working very hard on trans issues and have been rewarded for that. So Stonewall is certainly turning up the heat in terms of making organisations trans inclusive; our schools training is now trans inclusive, our research is trans inclusive, all those areas where we can make a huge difference.
In spite of the UK making great strides in advancing LGBT equality, reports of homophobic and transphobic hate crime are on the increase. Does Stonewall have a particular approach to tackling this problem?
At Stonewall, we are acutely aware that there has been an increase in hostility towards anyone who is different or who is other. Data tells us that hate crime has increased in the last five years. Stonewall recently launched research that showed one in five lesbian, gay or bisexual people and two in five trans people have experienced a hate crime or incident in the last 12 months. These are staggering figures. We believe education is key to combating hate crime and we do a lot of work with schools. We have also issued guidance for nursery schools. It is all about prevention and creating cultures where people can actively challenge hate crime and make it absolutely clear that it will not be tolerated in our culture. We also want to encourage public bodies – NHS trusts, the police force, the fire service, universities and local councils – from across the regions to come together to create a united front against hate crime in the community so that everywhere becomes a safe place. Stonewall is striving to create more joined up approaches like this.
“At Stonewall, we are acutely aware that there has been an increase in hostility towards anyone who is different or who is other.”
How does Stonewall approach the tension between faith and LGBT equality?
I think there is a huge disconnect between the reality of faith communities and how they are living their lives and what faith leaders can sometimes say.
One thing that really concerns us at Stonewall is the idea that a person may feel compelled to abandon God and the network of their faith community when they realise they are LGBT. I don’t understand how anyone in good conscience can find that an acceptable outcome – it seems very unchristian. We can debate about marriage and sex, and we can talk about relationships, but no individual should feel distanced and ostracised from their God, whatever God that is, because of what is a perception about policy and procedure that has nothing, or very little, to do with lived experience.
“When I became Chief Executive, one of the things I was determined to do was to quash this assumption that faith communities were the enemy of LGBT inclusion.”
When I became Chief Executive, one of the things I was determined to do was to quash this assumption that faith communities were the enemy of LGBT inclusion. I was very keen to find out how we could work in different ways with different communities. What we have done at Stonewall is work with faith schools to ensure they can talk about homophobic, biphobic and trans bullying. What we’ve seen from faith communities has been a willingness to talk, collaborate and cooperate, and find common ground.
The difficulty comes with what we are seeing in the current climate. There’s certainly a sense that some pockets have become much more vitriolic and anti-LGBT than they have been in the past, which requires some navigation. Whatever you think, Donald Trump, Brexit and poverty influence the mood. In such times comes hostility and we lash out at those who are different or who are other. Some of the greatest tensions are being played out between our communities as hatred is turned in on one another – there is tension among many of our institutions because there is an inability to say, 'can we just stand together right now and work collaboratively?' Instead there is a reinforcement of boundaries and hostility. What we need to do is find a way to agree to disagree compassionately.
What is your proudest achievement?
As the current custodian of Stonewall, I’m immensely proud of the fact that we continue to be such an effective movement. When I took over as Chief Executive in 2014, same-sex marriage had just been introduced and everyone said that Stonewall should just shut down as there was no more work to be done. However, we are proving time and time again that our work is more important than ever and Stonewall is the right organisation to be doing it. I am also very proud of the staff who work for Stonewall. They are incredible – so committed, diligent and hard-working.
“As the current custodian of Stonewall, I'm immensely proud of the fact that we continue to be such an effective movement.”
Who do you admire?
I believe in composite role models, where you take the good from many different people. I’m very motivated by public service and mission. I’m in absolute awe of female politicians from all sides who are such dedicated public servants – they are totally committed to doing something beyond their personal interests. Yet the negativity they face, especially on social media, is just relentless.
What drives you?
It’s knowing that stopping is not an option and that every moment, every conversation, is an opportunity to change someone’s thinking. Every day we have the power to make things better – that’s very motivating.
What does a typical week look like for the Chief Executive of Stonewall?
It’s usually a six-day week for me. I try to have one day in the office; a jeans-and-trainers day when I can actually talk to staff and find out what’s happening on the gound. Each week, I meet with around five politicians and three FTSE 100 chief executives about the work they are doing. I also do a lot of media work as well as deliver talks outside London to a new audience. Fundraising is a fundamental part of my role as Chief Executive so I attend three evening events with different donors. For me, the challenge is keeping up to speed with, and having the headspace for, all the different topics when I’m jumping around from one meeting to the next, be it with the Secretary of State for Health or the Association of Chief Police Officers.
How do you relax and unwind?
I like to swim and go to the gym, and I cycle everywhere. I also ensure that I have Sundays off. I’m quite disciplined about maintaining a good work-life balance and it’s really important that I role model that to my staff.
What are your ambitions for the future?
I’m not sure what’s next. I think Chief Executives get too comfortable and tend to outstay their welcome, and that’s not good. Stonewall is campaigning for communities that are constantly in a state of flux and the ways in which we campaign are changing. I would never want to do harm to the movement by staying too long. Saying that, we are at a pivotal moment now for trans rights and I’m not about to walk away and jeopardise it. It’s about getting the balance right. I’ve been at Stonewall for 12 years and I’ve had eight different roles here, so we’ll have to see. However, I should imagine it will be something to do with communications, campaigning, lobbying and influencing. I might even go off and run a sweet shop for a while. I’ll probably move into politics eventually, but that’s for the third stage of my life – at 37, I’m still only in stage one!
Ruth Hunt delivered her public lecture, The future of LGBT equality and the role of faith in the battle, at the University on 23 January. To find out more about the Public Lecture series at Christ Church and listen to past lectures, please visit the web page.